MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The sole survivor of the Sago Mine disaster would prefer to forget the few fragmented images he can recall from the 41 hours he lay trapped deep underground in a mine filled with toxic fumes.

And when Randal McCloy Jr. thinks of the 12 friends and co-workers who slowly succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning after the Jan. 2 explosion at the mine, he pictures them elsewhere.

“I try to leave out all the gory details and stuff like that because I don’t like to look at them in that light and that way,” he told The Associated Press on Wednesday, a day before he was scheduled to be released from a rehabilitation hospital.

“I just like to picture them saved and in heaven, stuff like that,” he said in one of his first interviews. “That’s really the best way you can remember somebody.”

Doctors say McCloy, 26, was perhaps minutes from death when he was pulled from the mine Jan. 4 with kidney, lung, liver and heart damage. He was in a coma for weeks, suffering from severe brain injuries.

On the eve of his departure, he sat on a hospital bed with his wife, Anna, choosing his words carefully.

Two of his co-workers’ daughters have come to visit, and McCloy said he hopes to meet with all 12 families in the coming weeks and months.

“It’s a delicate situation, and it should be handled delicately. It’s not something you definitely want to dive right in,” he said. “I am going to choose to be careful about what I say and how I word things for the families’ sake. I just feel I should show them great respect.”

Doctors have repeatedly called McCloy a miracle, unable to explain why only the youngest of the 13 miners survived.

He is a fitness buff who ate well, lifted weights and rode bicycles. He doesn’t smoke. But he remains mystified.

“I have no explanation of how I escaped it and survived,” he said. “It’s just crazy how that ended up being like that.”

Some people speculated McCloy was deeper inside the mine, farther from the poisoned air. But he says he was “pretty much in the same area all the time.”

Nor does he believe a crushed lung helped limit the amount of carbon monoxide he inhaled.

“In a way, if you’ve got a crushed lung, you’d be in pain,” he said. “You’d probably inhale more.”

What he does know is that his wife and two children have motivated him through painful and challenging therapy, and he is going home months earlier than doctors first predicted.

“What I believe is that the people who are there for you tend to create a world where you can get better,” McCloy said. “It’s love, really.”

McCloy is about 5-foot-10 and thin, down from 160 pounds to just 135. His throat still bears a deep purple mark from a long-since-removed feeding tube, but his voice is clear and soft.

He smiles often and seems frustrated only by his limitations, mainly a right arm that remains weak.

“My hands, my grip, is not as good as I want it to be, but I’m going to try to exercise and stuff like that,” he said.

Anna is providing an incentive. She ordered a present for his 27th birthday on April 14: a red 2006 Mustang to replace the family’s Taurus.

“I wanted to give him something to work for, to make him really want to push himself,” she said.

In the pool at HealthSouth Mountainview Regional Rehabilitation Hospital, he does. He tosses a beach ball with a therapist to work on agility and reflexes. He springs from a therapist’s cradling arms into an upright posture in one swift motion. He grips the stainless steel parallel bars underwater and pulls his legs to his waist.

When he gets home, he will continue to use weights to help speed his therapy. He also will return to the hospital three days a week, four hours a day, for a few more months.

Someday, he will start to think about work again. He’s considering attending a vocational school, maybe to study electronics. He will not be going back underground.

“No, I done learned my lesson,” he said. “The hard way.”

In a few months, the McCloys will take their first family vacation, a trip to Disney World. For now, though, they’re looking forward to peace.

“It’ll be a vacation just getting home,” said Anna, who will fire up the oven for the first time in three months to make a big pan of lasagna. Soon, her husband will start working through the thousands of cards and letters he has received – enough to fill a spare bedroom at a relative’s house.

Until the last few days, his wife shielded him from news coverage of the accident. He does not quite know what to make of his newfound fame.

“A lot of people are writing, asking me to go hunting and stuff,” he said with a laugh. “It’s kind of amazing, that they want to see me that bad.”

AP-ES-03-29-06 2052EST

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